Maxed Out

Shipping inmates to private prisons is Colorado's cheap solution to overcrowding and violence. But so far, it's cost plenty.

In addition to hiring much of its staff locally, CCA pays the county $300,000 in property taxes a year. The company also agreed to include a new county jail in the prison complex, replacing one that was condemned. When the 1,400-bed Tallahatchie prison is full, it more than doubles the size of the town.

The prison hasn't always been full, though. After Alabama pulled its inmates out of Tallahatchie last spring, there were staff layoffs and rumors that the place would shut down. But a change in Mississippi's law, approved by newly elected governor Haley Barbour, allowed CCA to seek out maximum-security prisoners from other states. An influx of 600 convicts from Hawaii, including several who'd been involved in riots in prisons in Arizona, turned things around. Then came 128 more inmates from Colorado, at the sumptuous price of $51 a head per day.

Town meetings quickly put to rest locals' fears about these new, tougher inmates who were coming into their county. There was no cause for alarm, CCA officials told them; whatever these exotic visitors might dish out, the prison was prepared to handle it. "I think most of them are ready to start changing their behavior so that they can earn more freedom," Tallahatchie warden Jim Cooke told a reporter from the local Clarksdale Press Register last May.

Anthony Camera
Matthew Romero
Matthew Romero

The new arrivals had no opportunity to respond to Cooke's reassuring words. Colorado's ad-seg inmates have few privileges and little contact with the outside world. They can't even communicate with the media about their situation, except through letters. Two years ago the DOC banned all media interviews with ad-seg inmates, making hundreds of prisoners and entire facilities virtually off-limits to reporters. The DOC recently denied Westword's request to interview prisoners at Tallahatchie, and CCA also refused a request to tour the facility and interview Warden Cooke.

But inmates have tried to air their grievances anyway -- through hunger strikes, the July disturbance in the yard, complaints to DOC officials who monitor the prison, and letters to loved ones and reporters. They say they're locked down most of the time, two to a cell; apparently their "disruptive" character isn't sufficiently violent to require single-celling. The monotonous menu is often served cold, and canteen items are expensive, particularly for inmates who aren't allowed to hold jobs or participate in most programs. Although the situation seems to have improved somewhat since the summer, the prisoners still describe the staff as inexperienced and quick to use force.

"This is the third time that I have been sent out of state," says Greg Ewing, 41, who's been doing time for armed robberies and kidnapping since he was nineteen. "This is the worst I've ever seen. They have staff who don't even know how to use handcuffs."

"Inmates are getting beat on and gassed," reports Alfredo Garcia. "One time I was watching them beat on an inmate that they brought from another pod. Officers yelled for everyone to stop looking. Then officers proceeded to spray gas into a few cells, and one officer pointed a gun at me."

According to Garcia, trays of food sit outside the cells for hours. "Sometimes they force us to get on the ground or on our knees just to receive a meal," he says. "The food trays are stacked on top of each other, so food is always stuck to the bottom, and [guards] scrape it off with their bare hands."

Medical care is also a sore point. Ewing, for example, says he's waited months for an EKG ordered in October. And inmates claim that their complaints about the situation go largely unaddressed. "We have followed the grievance process, and nothing changes," Matthew Romero says.

The DOC has monitors visiting the prison at least once a month. Their reports indicate that some inmates are satisfied with the food. During a surprise visit, DOC director Joe Ortiz reportedly encountered one inmate who said he preferred Tallahatchie to Colorado's prisons. But the reports also note ongoing issues with inmates being charged for medical services and not receiving them, a lack of programs and library books, food not kept at proper temperatures, and a disciplinary process that doesn't follow Colorado requirements of due process.

Colorado officials were particularly alarmed by the staff's response to the July riot. The guard who'd pumped sixty rounds of pepper balls into a cell had been caught on videotape. In October, Ortiz wrote a letter to CCA president John Ferguson demanding an end to the practice: "While the PepperBall System may be appropriate for use in areas other than confined spaces, you are advised that until further notice, use of the PepperBall System in CCA facilities where Colorado inmates are housed will be suspended."

In a written statement provided in response to questions from Westword, CCA spokesman Steve Owen declined to address several specific inmate complaints but insisted that training, medical care and food service at Tallahatchie meet or exceed American Correctional Association standards. Food is kept hot, he wrote, servers wear "appropriate gloves," and the prison plans to offer GED classes for the Colorado inmates: "CCA has been and will continue to work closely with our customer to address any outstanding concerns."

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muhutdafuga topcommenter

Didn't the worst president in modern history say the privatization would be all happy, happy, joy, joy?  This is just one of the many many many many failures of reaganomics.